The trees in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, are huge green thunderheads. The parks are magnificent, with paths running among lush grassy hillocks dotted with flowering bushes and amusing statues. There is no litter. The Roman ruins are immaculately preserved and the churches have icons. Their unique Old Town, picturesque without being kitsch, is full of tall old wooden houses with high angles and sweeping curves.
I discovered all this when on a visa run from Turkey in 2007. For years I’d done the one-day visa trot via bus, a marathon ordeal involving two border crossings in the same 15-hour period, always at the worst possible time and when I was most broke. But as long as you left every three months– that was on a US Tourist Visa– and got that visa stamp, you were legal. This is changing: soon tourists will have to leave for 90 out of each 180 days. Happily I have residence status now, but in 2007 I was grateful simply to take the train instead of the bus. You can lie down on the train. They wake you up at the border and you go through the usual bureaucratic checks. Then a little sleep until 8 AM, and the delights of Plovdiv. I’d walk around all day, get on the train back to Istanbul at 11PM, and do the whole thing in reverse. I couldn’t afford to stay away a week, or even a few days, but I sure liked Plovdiv. I went there 13 times, in sickness and health and all weathers, one day every three months for three years. Here I go again, and this time, I’m taking you with me.
The first time was in May 2007, after a grisly forced move to a fixer-upper in a strange Istanbul neighborhood. I stumbled off the train, and everything was in Cyrillic. I knew nothing about the town. But I saw a double line of huge plane trees leading away from the station. They had commenced radically “pruning” all the trees in Istanbul the year before. Imagine cutting off both arms at the elbow to trim a cuticle. I’d nearly lost my mind over it. Now, bemused and scratchy-eyed with sleepiness, I stumbled along in the amazing shade between two stately rows of plane trees marching down the middle of a divided street. I had forgotten that green smell of big trees, how the air is fresher near them. Stoned on oxygen, I stopped right there and drew the building on the left below. Kept going and found this interesting juxtaposition: a beautiful girl in her first flush of attention from the world, and a woman who had looked like her, or so it seemed.
I found a money-changer and a cafe with trees growing up through the roof. I sat there drinking coffee and coming awake. In Paradise. The coffee cost what it had in Istanbul in 1999. The Cyrillic menu had pictures on it. I realized I could get ham and eggs. Real. Ham. And. Eggs. Lazzarin, said the napkin. I was to spend thirteen mornings there over the next three years.
Some hours and half this drawing later, I staggered out of the cafe back to the line of plane trees, followed it to a park, lay down on a lush grassy hill surrounded by birdsong, and fell asleep.
Hours later I woke, hungry again, and walked to a restaurant in the trees. I stayed there for hours, eating pork ribs, drinking coffee and drawing into the dusk, until it was time to take the train home. I had fallen in love with Plovdiv.
I could hardly wait to go back. The following August, it was time again. My life in Istanbul was largely a matter of survival, and going away for even one day was so freeing…all I had to do was draw and catch the train. I hadn’t felt like that in years. The second trip, I walked a different way after the cafe and found a giant walk street lined with shops, casinos, restaurants, and this bronze clown.
At the very end of that day, exhausted, I found the Plovdiv Old Town and I was a goner. I knew I’d come back again and again.
The city is on a flat plain near a river. Jutting abruptly up from this plain are several steep rocky areas. One is a park entire, topped with radio towers. Another is Old Town. One side features the famed Roman Theater, a working theater with frequent productions. Three local women about my age told me in English about them.
This drawing took most of a hot August day in 2009, and I learned a lot from onlookers. Plovdiv locals all seem to know the history of the town, which the Romans called Trimontium: Three Hills. And they’re proud of it. Coming out of Old Town is a pedestrian underpass which has table-sized stone blocks as the sidewalk. I was so tired it didn’t register, but coming up the steps I ran into two local guys who sent me back to see it, and was I glad. It’s a Roman street, and on it is the mosaiced lobby of a Roman apartment house, now an art and theater center with catwalks over the mosaics and a lively art scene. They will always have one of my books.
The steep stone streets of Old Town are flanked by the angles, gables, windows and gates of Plovdiv’s historic wooden houses. I’ve never seen woodwork like this, with long stately curves inside and fantastic detail everywhere, the most draw-able stuff imaginable.
The centuries-old fanciful woodwork is a legacy of wealthy Ottomans, and here are some now, as Coney Island cut-outs.
Right in the center of Old Town is a Byzantine gate in a Roman wall, flanked by tall angled wooden houses.
It took me a few tries to draw Hissar Kapiya, but I got to meet Krasi, now a friend for years, who worked nearby:
At the very top of Old Town’s hill is the ancient stone fortification over the river. Yes, ancient. Little old Plovdiv, Bulgaria, is over 8000 years old, in fact the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe. Another of its former names is Philippopolis, since in the 4th century BCE it fell to Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.
The land that is now Bulgaria and the land that is now Turkey have had their differences. Early in the 9th century CE, Krum the Horrible, the Great Khan of the Bulgars, went to war with Byzantine Emperor Nicophorus of Constantinople, who went insane in the struggle. Khan Krum won. He found Nicophorus dead on a dung pile and made of his skull a silver-lined beerstein, with which he drank his own health to the end of his days. You can read all about Krum the Horrible in this History blog by Bruce Ware Allen.
That second trip, I lingered in Old Town until dusk. Afraid I’d miss the train. I gave up all thought of trying to find my park restaurant in the trees. I walked back to Lazzarin Cafe and ran into a group of artists and poets. They made a big fuss over my sketchbook, which almost made me cry, I was so tired and they were so nice. Here’s a drawing of Sugar, and a first take on Hissar Kapiya.
After that the trips blended one into the other, a continuous flood of happy images always in May, August, November and February. I was stunned to discover, in pulling art for this post, that there are over forty drawings. So we’re dividing them up into Summer and Winter, large so you can read the comments on them. Something about Plovdiv loosed poetic feelings in me. Blame it on the trees!
Guys playing chess under the trees asked me to join, but I begged off to draw them:
These guys remember the Iron Curtain. I wonder what it feels like for them to hear church bells again?
Two years ago, I got my Residence visa, and my trips to Plovdiv ceased. Right now in Istanbul the air outside is so hot and thick you can chew it. There’s a heat haze between my balcony and the one next door. The city seethes unceasingly, dozens of millions exhaling in the heat. Up in the bazaars, cats lie exhausted, ironed flat into the shade. Heat shimmers up off the vast cement of the new improved Hippodrome. All over Istanbul, people struggle for shade, but Istanbul’s wonderful trees are mostly pruned down small, these days, some into lollipop shapes and some just dead, amputated trunks jutting leafless into the sky. This ruthless pruning makes no sense to me, but it’s the way they do it here, and much as I love Istanbul, I can do nothing about it. Thank God I have a coping secret. I close my eyes and think of Plovdiv. Somewhere in the world is a town where they love trees as much as I do.
All drawings Plein Air. All drawings pen and ink on sketchbook paper, full size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings © Trici Venola. We love your comments. Thanks for reading.